Bill the Burnout



Neighborhood: Brighton Beach

I have no idea where Bill came from, but one spring, sometime in the late 1970s, he showed up and started hanging out every day on our Ocean Parkway block in Brighton Beach. He was a white guy with a red haired, frizzy Jewfro, and he wore a denim jacket.

Bill would stand out there on the block all day with a thousand-yard stare and a frozen smile on his face. What was he smiling about? Who knew! He just stood, smiled and stared vacantly, like some real life caricature of a burnout you might see in an underground comic book at a head shop or hippie store.

At first us neighborhood kids thought he was creepy. He was definitely damaged. Maybe he was an acid casualty? Or possibly a mental patient?

Brighton Beach was filled with all kinds of wacky characters in the 1970s and Coney Island Hospital was just a few blocks away.

After a while, we realized that although he was weird, he was harmless.

All of the old yentas who spent their time in front of the apartment building where I lived checked him out each day. But nobody said a thing to him. The yentas checked out everyone every day and silently judged them. I guess someone like Bill would have had to grab one of us kids and pulled a knife out for at least one of the yentas to maybe say something like, “Oh! Did you see that? That’s dreadful? Someone should do something.” But nobody said a thing to him or about him. Except for my mom.

My mom noticed him one day when she was coming home from work or shopping or whatever. She went up to him—neither fearful of him nor judgmental of what his intentions were—and just started talking with him. What did she talk to him about? Who knows? I was just a kid. But I remember she was smiling and made some hand motion, indicating she’d be coming back before walking away. We kept on playing, Bill kept on staring, and then, 10 or 15 minutes later, my mom came back. This time she was carrying a small sandwich wrapped in wax paper; just like the sandwiches she and my dad made for my school lunch.

Bill smiled, took the sandwich, thanked her, unwrapped it, and starting eating it, while standing in the same spot where he always stood. My mom then walked away and joined the other yentas, and they talked about whatever it was they talked about.

I am pretty sure the sandwich she gave him was Muenster cheese on white bread because I didn’t see anything dark in between the slices like peanut butter, jelly, or salami. Whatever the sandwich was, Bill clearly liked it because he just stood there, smiling as he ate it.

This kind of sandwich ritual became a new thing for my mom and Bill. We would be playing outside, my mom would come down and give Bill a simple sandwich, and life would go on. One day Bill even spoke when I came near him—something I had never heard him do before. He said to me, “Your mom is nice!” And then he just stared and kept on eating the sandwich as us kids played. But that wasn’t the last time we heard him say something.

Sometimes older boys in the neighborhood would come to harass and bully the younger kids. But their efforts only went so far when Bill was there. When they came by, he would suddenly shout, “Get away from them!” But he did it so frantically that each word overlapped into one big blurted bark of “GETAWAYFROMTHEM!” When he shouted like this, he would visibly shake a bit and his face would get red. And within seconds, the bullies would walk away stunned, and we would be able play in peace again.

As the days went on, Bill’s role as an unexpected protector of children became a known thing among the kids in the neighborhood. Some just liked to watch him freak out, looking at him as if he was some sideshow act. But others enjoyed the peace his benevolent shouting fits bestowed upon us. Not everyone liked him, but nobody hated him.

When it started to get dark at night, Bill would walk away; presumably to go home. But he seemed to just walk across Brighton Beach Avenue and head towards the boardwalk. Maybe he lived there? Seriously, the area underneath the boardwalk was not filled in during the 1970s, and there were definitely people living under the boardwalk back then. But he seemed too clean—and never seemed to have sand or dirt on him—to be living on the beach like that. But wherever it was he went, he would always come back in the afternoon the following day.

Bill hung around the block for a few weeks and then, without any warning or reason, he disappeared. With him gone, it meant us kids had to fend for ourselves with whatever bullying nonsense happened as the yentas sat around silently saying nothing. And my mom ended up buying slightly less Muenster cheese. With Bill gone who needed to spend money on extra cheese? But that summer, at least for a few weeks, we all got to know Bill and realized that even though he was damaged, a burnout, and possibly an acid casualty or a mental patient, he was still a good guy.


Jack Szwergold is a skilled web developer who has worked for Artforum and the Guggenheim Museum. He founded the Onion’s website in 1996 and currently works for the New School.

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§ 2 Responses to “Bill the Burnout”

  • such a lovely, touching piece, a specific time, a specific place. i loved Brighton Beach, although i haven’t been there in years. but this story evoked everything that drew me there, back in the day. it makes me sad, though; i suspect the yentas are gone. the women with names like Pearl and Elsie. maybe other mothers, likely of a different background, still watch their kids on the beach. thank you so much for this charming, evocative story.

  • LJP says:

    I feel like I knew this guy. And your mom is nice.
    Thanks for sharing.

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